My MX-5 Roadster

By James Wong


I had the privilege that few young boys would ever enjoy. At a tender age of 18, I started to shop around for my first car. The biggest irony perhaps is that I never got to test drive any of these cars which I went to see, simply because I hadn’t gotten my driving license yet. A late birthday, examinations and enlisting to the army meant that I had to delay all of my driving lessons till much later than I had hoped. That didn’t stop me from enjoying these cars as a passionate enthusiast, however – my dad as my mentor and my greatest friend came with me and we test drove the cars together. This allowed me to experience the cars from a passenger’s point of view, which tells more about a car than one would believe.

First day with the car.

I wrote many “first drive” reviews for my own pleasure then, about cars which I ‘test drove’ with my dad, because, as I stated above, I still did not have my driver’s licence. I was just beginning to do what I love (wrtiting about cars) as an amateur and nobody could stop me. One car in the midst of it all caught my eye for its attractive price, gorgeous looks and performance. The car in question is the first-generation MX-5 from Mazda.

The MX-5 was conceived by Mazda to be the most affordable and accessible roadster in the world. Mazda followed the philosophy of ‘Jinba Ittai’ while developing the car, which literally means horse and rider becoming as one. It had a straightforward and fuss-free feel to it, from the easy-to-read instrumentation to the air-conditioning controls to the underpinnings of the car itself. Powered by a bombproof 1.6L inline-4 engine pushing a respectable 120bhp and 136Nm of torque, the car offers sprightly performance having a weight of only just about a ton. It had little electronics to interfere with the driver’s interaction with the car and as a result, contributed to its impeccable reliability record as well. It has no airbags, no stability control nor anti-locking brakes (not for my model year, at least). Its basic layout of an engine in front and rear-wheel drive harks back to the classic British roadsters of the 1960s which the MX-5 hopes to be a modern interpretation of. The MX-5 hardly had to win its fans over as it easily became the best-selling roadster in the world.

A simple, no-nonsense interior.

Commonly known as the Miata and also the Eunos Roadster (in Japan), the MX-5 initially didn’t feature in my shopping list. I already had my eyes set on a W124 Mercedes E-Class, albeit in E200 guise. It was also an affordable car, offering German engineering and reliability in a package that has endured the decades. Even till today, the W124 is often hailed by purists as being one of the last true Mercedes-Benzes ever made. Just when I was about to make up my mind, a browse through an online car mart revealed the MX-5, which fell in the similar price bracket. I was thinking like any young man would: ‘if I could get a convertible, why bother with a 4 door sedan?’

I almost bought this!

So I arranged a viewing with a particular red one. It was a 1991 model and only had a mileage of 161,000km (if I recall correctly). It was night-time and my dad and sister both came to see the car with me. Maybe it was the deceptive lighting of the street lamps, but I was totally smitten by the car’s looks when I first laid my eyes on it. The proportions were just perfect, with a long flowing bonnet up front and a sleek canvas roof before ending off the rear with shapely taillights and a single round exhaust pipe. The pop-up headlights were retro and I found it became a common way to greet fellow MX-5 owners – by popping the lights up and down. Its red paint also looked flawless (although with closer scrutiny later I discovered it was a rather sub-par paintjob). The only thing I didn’t like about it was its black rims, which was a tad too bling for me.

It, however, also made a rather surprisingly good sound, something raw and unadulterated originating from a forgotten era, free from any modern restrictions and noise regulations. I didn’t have my license then so I had a spin with my dad. Both of us loved the wind-in-the-hair feeling (this is probably the case when you try a convertible for the first time), the responsive of the engine (way more alive for its age than is normally allowed) and the feel-good vibes of the car. We returned the keys to the owner reluctantly, giving ourselves some time to think before we made any impulse purchase.

In the week away from the car, I thought about it every single day. I imagined how I would drive it to school next time, how I would date with it, how I can drive it in the middle of the night in the cool breeze with the top down. Short-term and rather immature dreams, but dreams of a young man nonetheless. I insisted on the MX-5 and never regretted my decision.

In the months that followed, I could only pay the car regular visits at the carpark while I waited in agony for my license. It was going to be a year before I finally got it, and in the wait I have to see the car sitting forlorn by itself pitifully. Dad and I gave it a warming up once a while, and each time we did it it reaffirmed my love for it. I had to get the license.

The day I got my license was the happiest day of my life. People always say this rather casually, but for me it was truly the day. The day when I can finally drive my MX-5. I unlocked the car, pulling the top down and settled myself into the comfortable seats (reupholstered in brown leather). I wrapped my hands around the gear-stick and instantly it felt natural. The driving position was perfect, with my legs well distanced between the clutch, accelerator and brakes. The short-shifting gearbox also allowed quick and easy gearshifts, and the forgiving clutch meant that driving in town was a breeze. I started my car and went for my first drive.

It was magic. It all came so natural, and despite being a new driver the car did not die once. It took corners with confidence, although scuttle-shake was quite apparent given the ageing body. Although it had 120bhp, age has taken away some of it and the car did not seem fast, especially with the air-conditioning on. But it’s an eager engine, always ready to rev and respond to the driver’s every command. What the MX-5 is all about, however, is not how fast it can go but how it goes fast. And in that respect it fulfill every of my expectations beautifully.

But the love affair had its ups and downs. After actually driving the car for the long-term, I realized that the car did start to show its age in some places. Its canvas roof, for instance, leaked water when it rained moderately. When it was raining heavily, there was a constant drip that made the carpets wet. Something which I learnt from this is to always find sheltered parking, which can be quite a rarity. I eventually replaced the roof which helped somewhat, but it still leaked.

The instrumentation console, after some prying, was also found to be loose and rattled like crazy every time I hit a pothole or a hump. These are, however, minor problems compared to the one I’m about to describe next.

My dad initially commented that the car felt like it was holding a reservoir of water because he could hear sloshing when driving slowly. I was skeptical and put it aside as I never experienced it before – until the day I drove after a heavy rain. There was definitely some sloshing behind the driver’s seat, and I had to get it checked.

Apparently, the drainage system from the roof and out of the car became so clogged with leaves and twigs that water started to collect in the car. It became so severe that even mosquitoes were breeding inside – no wonder I kept getting those bites while driving…

We cleared the system and it was working fine again. But like any other old car the problems come in a slew. Next was an unstable idling, then a cranky power window, then a erratic signaling light.

But with every problem I learnt more and more about the car. It’s like how people say true couples will always have their quarrels and issues. But it’s about how we deal with them that matters, and through every problem the MX-5 still served me faithfully, acknowledging me as its one and only owner.

It shared many memories with me. There was a time when we had the top down and rain started to pour. Dad stopped at the road shoulder and I got out of the car to close the roof when, unknowingly, my dad ran over my foot which was placed before the rear wheel. It was a surprisingly painless experience as the car was so amazingly light! Then there was a time when I drove it through torrential rain and tiny roads clogged with trucks that seemed ten times the size of the MX-5 – absolutely terrifying because my wipers were weak and I didn’t even have a heater for the rear window. But an experience I would never forget.

Then there are also the moments which made me proud I owned it. One man cleaning the streets mentioned to me that the car looks like it’s worth SGD$200,000 (ten times its actual value!). And, let’s face it, girls dig this car too.

The day came when I finally had to sell the car. My dad said it was no longer safe for me to drive the car as I had adopted a fast driving style (don’t all parents say that?) and the car is due for a tax renewal to keep it for the next ten years. And while I loved the car, I cannot afford to buy another and keep the MX-5 too. It had to go.

I found a buyer within a month who bought it for his girlfriend. Before letting it go, I christened it Christine and actually wrote it a poem, because, as I said, I loved that car.

Over the top? A bit mad? Sure, but I loved that damn car.

I took it for a last drive and bid farewell to my unforgettable first car, forever etched in my heart.

One of the last pictures I had with Christine.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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  1. Dude, you wrote your car a poem? I love my car, too, but I just put premium gas and synthetic oil in it.

    Well, plus I wash it every week. Anyway, you gotta get out more – write a poem to a chick and get some action, man. And don’t ever tell the choick about the poem for the car. She will be out of there like lightning.

  2. I know it’s a bit extreme but I think there’s nothing wrong leaving something for me to remember the car by. Pictures will fade, memories will be lost but words stay forever.

    Well, thanks for the advice about girls too. I’ll take note.

  3. Nothin wrong with some afection for your car. That’s why were all here, isnt that right?

    But thats not why i’m commenting. I have a 1997 Miata. I got it used. Reminds me of my old Fiat 124 I had, exceptin it doesnt leak oil and the wires don’t burnt up. Lotta fun, and its cheap and it doesnot break down ever. Best used sports car.

  4. I agree, it’s a great car to buy used, but it’s kind of skewed towards women, like the VW Beetle convertible. You would have to be very secure in your masculinity to drive a Miata around.

  5. “…skewed towards women….”

    “…secure in your masculinity to drive a Miata…”

    Why do you perpetuate this stereotype?

  6. I think that is a common misconception about the Miata. 95% of the Miata owners I know are men. And I know rarely any girl who would drive a car that’s as claustrophobic, as bumpy, as difficult to look out of, as a Miata. Couple that with the fact that if you wanted a soft-top, you’ll have to manually open the roof – something not an average woman would enjoy doing.

    Women who buy the Miata are usually enthusiasts, not the typical convertible-buying types. Of course, this doesn’t really apply to the metal-roofed NC MX-5 already…

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